William F. Wechsler, Mark N. Katz, Charles Lister, Audrey Kurth Cronin
The following is a transcript of the eighty-third in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC, on January 21, 2016, with Patrick Theros, former U.S. ambassador to Qatar and an MEPC board member, as moderator and Thomas R. Mattair as discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
WILLIAM F. WECHSLER, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, U.S. Department of Defense
I want to briefly go through my assessment of where we are in the fight against the Islamic State, how we got here, where we're going, and the lessons we should take from our experience thus far. Until last year, I was deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism, where I worked on these issues on a daily basis and saw the evolution of our policies and our approach towards the Islamic State throughout that period.
If you look at the benchmark the president laid out — for us to degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State — we have clearly not met that goal. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we're not even at the beginning of the end. I think it's questionable whether we're at the end of the beginning. We are at a very early stage in this effort, unfortunately.
Why, fundamentally, are we here? As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said just recently, first and foremost because of the decisions made by the local actors, because of what's happened in Syria, and because of the leadership of the Assad regime and its decision to make war on its own people, and because of decisions in Iraq by the former leadership there and its decision to stoke sectarian tensions and dismiss legitimate Sunni grievances and desires.
But that's not the only reason we're here. We haven't met our goals, because virtually every single player, every nation that is either in the Middle East or has significant interests in the Middle East, does not have as its top priority the destruction of the Islamic State — including the United States. If we had it as our top priority, we would have already passed a specific authorization for the use of military force. If this was truly our top priority, many of our policies would be changed.
But you can look around the region and see that, for many of the countries, the fight against Bashar al-Assad has been a higher priority than the fight against the Islamic State. For many of the people in the region, the support of the Shia has been more of a priority than the fight against the Islamic State. For others, the proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia is more important than the fight against the Islamic State.
Every country has priorities that exceed the priority they place upon the fight against the Islamic State. When you pull all that together, you end up with the space — a vacuum — for the Islamic State to accomplish what it has accomplished. The challenge posed by the Islamic State is unchallenged only in the abstract; it is definitely de-prioritized in reality and has been for years by many of the actors.
How important is this threat? I argue that it is very significant, and it should be much more highly prioritized than it has been. I'm pleased to see that some of the steps that the Obama administration has taken more recently have moved in that direction. Let me explain why.
First of all, even if you cannot see vital U.S. interests in stability in the Middle East, even if your views are contrary to those held by every president and every administration starting with Franklin Roosevelt, and even if you hold the position that the only reason we should care about any terrorist group anywhere is because of its potential as an external threat to the U.S. homeland — then you nevertheless should still care about the Islamic State and see it as a threat. By the way, this should have been your view even before the attacks inspired by the Islamic State in San Bernardino.
I want to make an important distinction here. It is wrong to say that all terrorist groups around the world threaten the United States homeland directly. It is wrong to say that all Muslim-oriented terrorist groups threaten it, or even all Sunni terrorist groups. But the Salafi jihadist terrorist groups — al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and others with their ideology — will inevitably, once they get territory that provides them a sanctuary from which they can act with impunity, they will always eventually turn to external attacks.
This is a policy debate that has gone through multiple administrations in the United States: the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, the Obama administration. Every single time, the people who argued otherwise were proved to be wrong. And there are reasons why. It has to do with internal ideological incentives and incentives to validate their claim to leadership in front of a global audience. It has to do with what they see as their religious requirements to take the fight to the nonbelievers and with what they see as the future that is laid out for them in prophecy.
It also has to do with jockeying for power, for leadership, in the minds of those they want to impress and attract. There is nothing more impressive than an external attack against those forces that many people feel have been keeping them down for decades and decades. Carrying out such an attack raises your stature. We saw this in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we saw it in Yemen, and of course now in Syria and Iraq. We will soon see it in Libya.
But it shouldn't just be the external attacks that drive our interest in this. Beyond all of our other interests, which have been there for decades in this part of the world, we have a wider interest. At this point, there are no really good potential outcomes for this part of the world. We're only choosing between options that all lead to differing degrees of bad outcomes for the foreseeable future. But I would argue that the worst of all outcomes for U.S. interests is that the master narrative that defines what happens in this region is a regionally comprehensive sectarian war between Sunnis and Shia.
About five years ago, the likelihood of that was extremely low. The likelihood is not extremely low anymore. It's not necessarily above 50 percent, but it is a material probability. It is something that we need to be very much concerned about. There are people in significant positions in major Sunni states who not only use this language but actually see this as a likely or a positive outcome. There are people in major Shia communities and in Iran who see it in the same way. And most critically, this is the only scenario in which the Islamic State fully succeeds at its goals. This has been its strategy from the beginning. If we allow it to happen, we give the Islamic State its best opportunity to succeed in its vision of a reconstructed caliphate that governs a significant proportion of the Sunni world.
I don't think we're there now. What we can see now is more appropriately explained as a classic competition for regional power and influence between two states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, including proxy wars in multiple locations. Looking at it through that lens, rather than through a sectarian one, seems to me to more accurately explain the majority of what we see happening in the region right now. But every month that goes by, we slip a little closer to the nightmare scenario, and we really are in the Middle East version of the Thirty Years War. When those types of wars begin, you don't know where they end.
The real danger of all of this is that it's fundamentally unpredictable. A hundred years ago, people in a room perhaps very much like this one on Capitol Hill might have been talking about what the likely outcome was going to be of what we now call World War I. Absolutely nobody at the time was predicting a Communist takeover of Russia. History becomes deeply unpredictable when wars go on at that scale and scope and duration.
Last fall, the organization for which I work, the Center for American Progress, put out a report on what the state of the fight against the Islamic State was and what we could be doing about it. I am very pleased to see that, since then, the administration has adopted a lot of the points that we made. It has expanded the air campaign, in terms of size but also, more important, in terms of scope, and what kinds of targets we're going after.
The expansion from high-value targets and massed personnel to strategically important targets including the infrastructure of the organization is an incredibly important decision that was made. The recent public announcement that a large store of cash was destroyed, and the recent piece in the news today that the Islamic State is telling its fighters that their salaries are going to go down by half because of such events — this all has a strong impact. That's the kind of thing we were talking about in our report.
We've also expanded the number of special operations personnel on the ground both in Iraq and in Syria, which is incredibly important. It's also important to note that there was a prominent public announcement about sending 50 U.S. special operations personnel into Syria. But all this announcement said was that we're going to send the same kinds of personnel we already have, working with the same partner we're already working with. The only new fact in the announcement was that they were going to be doing this work across an imaginary line on a map, drawn by colonial powers decades ago, a line that no actor on the ground or operating in the region recognizes as having any de facto legitimacy — except for the United States. So, in effect, we stopped being the only actor in the region that held self-imposed constraints on its policy to reflect this imaginary line.
The administration's changes in policy also expanded the global battlefield against the Islamic State. Again, recently the newspapers reported that our forces in Afghanistan now have the authority to target the Islamic State there as well. And, of course, there's been a very strong effort on the diplomatic front led by Secretary of State Kerry to try to address the underlying causes of the Syrian civil war and to focus other nations' attention and operations against the Islamic State. And there's been a new focus on challenging the underlying narrative of the Islamic State. This is absolutely critical and something that, not only the United States, but all the players who should be focusing their efforts against the Islamic State, need to do a much better job on.
Back in the '90s, when I was working on the National Security Council staff on U.S. policy to combat the threat from al-Qaeda, we concluded that al-Qaeda's center of gravity at the time — the core element that allows an organization to accomplish its strategic goals — was its money. The epicenter of the money problem at the time was in Saudi Arabia. Eventually, after they were attacked by al-Qaeda, the Saudi government recognized this and over the years has addressed the problem quite successfully. Since this change in policy, Saudi Arabia has been one of our great allies in going after al-Qaeda's money supply and a great intelligence partner of the United States as well.
Today the growing threat is from the Islamic State, and its center of gravity is its ideological and religious narrative. Its ideology makes it deeply attractive to a small percentage but large number of people across the globe. The narrative is the core driver of the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq. The narrative is advanced as long as their target audience sees them as "winning" in the fight against its enemies. The narrative was laid out openly and quite clearly when Baghdadi spoke from the pulpit and declared the caliphate. And it's a narrative that resonates most often with those who have been taught from childhood by teachers espousing the Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam long espoused by Saudi Arabia. So it's much more difficult to imagine Saudi Arabia turning against the Islamic State's center of gravity in the same way that it previously turned against al-Qaeda's center of gravity.
What's the likely outcome, given all of this? Even if we are able to avoid a comprehensive, region-wide sectarian war, the likely forecast for our efforts to combat the threat from the Islamic State is for a long slog. This is going to be years, perhaps decades, of work. We should not in any way expect this to be over soon. That's just not how these wars tend to work. An Israeli analyst said to me years ago, just as the Arab Spring had begun, "What we're seeing is finally, at long last, the end of World War I in this region." I think that there's a lot of truth to that. It portends the long effort in front of us to really understand and deal with all the tremors that will come out of this earthquake.
Let's talk very briefly about just the lessons we should learn from this. First, regarding the methods by which we fight the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and similar types of terrorist adversaries, the administration is fundamentally correct to focus on indirect rather than direct action as its primary line of military operations. Direct action is vitally important; air campaigns, targeted strikes against high-value individuals, and precision raids must be done. You have to be able to finish off important personnel and nodes of networks, unilaterally and as part of a wider campaign. But direct action, in my experience, is almost never the decisive line of operation in a counterterrorism campaign.
Much more likely to be decisive is indirect action, working by, with and through others — people on the ground, who live in this area. If they take on the fight, then we have a far greater possibility of winning over a long period of time and eventually achieving our counterterrorism goals. If we are doing the fighting, we're much less likely to do so. And by the way, we've had tremendous success, even within the last 20 years, in achieving our counterterrorism goals through this approach. Colombia is a huge success with this approach. The Philippines are a huge success with this approach. Somalia has even been a qualified success thus far, despite all its problems. If you look back to the predictions made in 2006 about what we were going to see out of al-Shabaab, virtually none of them came true. That's because of very good work by the African Union, supported by the United States, to fight that counterterrorism campaign, complemented by a relatively small number of U.S. direct actions.
If indirect action is the preferred line of operations, what are the implications for U.S. policy? First, indirect action requires a timeframe that is much longer than we are used to dealing with in the United States. Again, these are generational efforts. Secondly, when you're thinking about indirect action, it is critical to go in earlier and lighter than it is to go in later and bigger. You have to start very early, and you have to go in very, very small. Any decision that you make to avoid those kinds of early decisions ends up increasing the likelihood of the worst possible scenario, where you have to go in big and late. Unfortunately, that's in many respects what we're doing now in Iraq and in Syria.
If you're doing indirect action, you need to understand the human terrain you're working with. That's a military term; people in the State Department just call it understanding the country — understanding diplomacy, understanding the tribes, understanding not just the government but all the different actors. This is a painful lesson that we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are woefully short on that kind of expertise in the United States, but it's required if we're going to work through indirect action.
It means that, when we build our partners, we should focus on small elite units rather than building in scale. There are not many examples — in fact, I can't think of any — where the United States itself has independently built a foreign army successfully in scale. We've tried it a number of times and spent a lot of money doing it, but we can only help build a foreign military in scale when the host country itself is already committed to building in scale. We can spend a lot of money to help another military that is already built, and is of modest capability, to get better. But going from virtually nothing to a very large and capable modern army is extremely hard to do — and near-impossible for a foreign army to do for them.
We have, however, had a lot of success in building small elite units that can work with us directly on counterterrorism operations. Some of these are military, some are law enforcement, some are intelligence. That, we can do well, and that's where we need to focus our efforts. When I say building them, I'm talking about the full spectrum of equipping, training, advising, assisting and accompanying them.
Quite often we have done this the wrong way, by starting with the easiest but lowest value-added element, merely equipping, and incrementally working up to the most advanced one, accompanying in current operations. In general, just throwing equipment out the door is a giant waste of U.S. taxpayers' resources. But it becomes very useful if it is combined with the full spectrum of support that we can give. Instead of starting with the lowest value-added element and working our way up, we should start with the full spectrum of support and work down if absolutely necessary, given host country requirements. That's how you build elite foreign forces into capable counterterrorism efforts. But that requires policy shifts.
Once we've built those elite units, the question is, what kind of support do we provide to them? In general, we should be approaching this the same way we would approach questions about what kind of support we are providing our own forces in the field. We would never put forces in the field without providing them with command and control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, lift and logistics support, CASEVAC and MEDEVAC — and even fire support when necessary. Quite often, we are reluctant to provide any of these kinds of support.
This is all in the context, by the way, of what some people refer to as our combat forces not being involved. None of this involves the U.S. military going on target and taking people down. This is all indirect action in which we are supporting others. But there are different gradations, and they are critically important.
The last thing I want to focus on is that working through indirect action requires the United States to expand the object of our policy beyond the narrow focus of the interests of the United States to the interests of our partners. If we're going to be working by, with and through our partners, it has to actually be a partnership. It can't be the United States telling someone else what to do. It has to be a joint decision about what it is we're going to do together. Sometimes that can be very difficult.
My favorite example is in Colombia back in the '90s. On Capitol Hill, you heard all the time: the only thing we're interested in there is counternarcotics. The old joke in Colombia was this: They're walking through the jungle, someone fires on them, and they run behind a tree and get out their bullhorn and ask: Excuse me, can you please tell me if you are a terrorist, a narco or an insurgent? I have three different clips paid for with three different lines of authority from the U.S. Congress, and I have to know which one I put in my gun before I can return fire.
It was a joke, but it had some truth to it back then; we were focused on only one stovepipe for what we could do. It was only with Plan Colombia, when we adopted a holistic plan for all the problems — narcotics, terrorism and insurgency — that we got the framework for where we are today, with negotiations that hopefully will result in the end of the longest terrorist war in the western hemisphere. It's that kind of policy leap, to look at things holistically, that is absolutely required when we're doing indirect action.
MARK N. KATZ, Professor of Government and Politics, George Mason University; Author, Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan
I am going to talk about the Russia factor in all of this, the ISIS threat to U.S. national security, and our policy choices. I agree strongly with the previous speaker about everyone's opposing ISIS, but it's not being anyone's top priority. I think that also holds true for Russia. Ironically, almost a century ago we had a similar situation in 1917, '18, '19, when virtually everyone opposed the Bolsheviks in Russia. Unfortunately, with some 22-odd Russian opposition groups, and numerous external powers involved in the Russian civil war, no one seemed to focus on the Bolsheviks. It was not the top priority. We all know what happened after that: one by one, the Bolsheviks were able to get rid of all of their enemies. I very much fear that we may be in a similar situation now; I certainly hope not.
In Vladimir Putin's speech to the UN General Assembly this past September, he called for all those opposed to ISIS to work together to defeat it in Syria. He identified the Assad regime as a key partner in this struggle and called upon other governments to work with it and Russia against the common threat. Many have pointed out since then that Moscow seems more interested in protecting the Assad regime than in defeating ISIS in Syria. Reports that most Russian attacks in Syria have been against non-ISIS opposition forces, and not ISIS itself, have bolstered this perception. Moscow, of course, claims that virtually all the Assad regime's opponents are terrorists and dismisses any criticism of its actions.
Putin is clearly pursuing policies that compete with those of America and the West, in Syria as well as elsewhere. There does seem, though, to be a genuine effort on Putin's part to persuade Washington that Russia and the West actually do have common aims in Syria. Putin himself has been somewhat critical of Assad on occasion. He argues, though, that the Assad regime's ruling Syria is better for everyone than if ISIS or other jihadists come to rule it instead. This being the case, Russia and the West should work together to ensure that a less-bad option prevails in Syria. Where Moscow and Washington differ, of course, is on whether there is still a less-bad option than the Assad regime.
Moscow insists that there is not, as there is no realistic alternative to the Assad regime other than the terrorists. Further, despite their public differences, Moscow may have persuaded itself, at least on occasion, that the Obama administration tacitly supports Russia's backing of Assad. I'd just like to mention three instances. First, since the very beginning of the uprising in Syria in 2011, the Obama administration has exhibited an unwillingness to get very strongly involved there, and has cited the lack of UN Security Council approval for such intervention as one of the reasons.
The Russian experience with the United States is that, if and when the United States decides to intervene anywhere, it doesn't wait for UN Security Council approval. It just goes ahead and intervenes. Thus, if the United States has not acted in Syria, it's because Washington doesn't want to and is hiding behind the Security Council.
A second instance that may have helped persuade the Russians was the Obama administration's acceptance of Putin's proposal for resolving the chemical weapons crisis in 2013. After President Obama had threatened military retaliation if Assad crossed the red line of using chemical weapons against his own people but then called for congressional approval, Putin announced his plan: the United States and Russia should work together to take away Syria's chemical weapons — thus leaving Assad with the ability to attack his people with conventional weapons. Essentially, the fact that the United States went along with this was seen by the Russians as another indication that Washington was willing to work with the Assad regime, that it was the lesser of two evils.
Third, there was recently an article in the London Review of Books by Seymour Hersh suggesting that some of the Joint Defense Staff at the Pentagon actually accept Moscow's argument that Assad is less bad than ISIS and so sent intelligence, including via Russia, to help the Assad regime. Hersh claimed that this was unauthorized, but if it actually happened, Putin would not believe for a moment that it was unauthorized. He would believe that it was fully sanctioned by the White House. I'm not saying that it did happen, but if it did, it explains a lot about how the Russians might view what actual American attitudes are — as opposed to what their stated attitudes are.
The real question is, if in fact the Obama administration actually seems to be showing signs of seeing the Assad regime as the lesser of two evils, why does it still call for Assad to step down? Moscow is confused about this. There may be different explanations. One possibility, you may be shocked to hear, is that American foreign policy may be incoherent. That's actually a possibility; I don't know. Another, from the Russian point of view, is that Washington thinks it can topple Assad, defeat or contain ISIS, and install a pro-Western government in Syria. Instead of cooperating with Russia, it can just have it all in Syria eventually.
Another possibility, from the Russian point of view, is that Washington understands that Assad is the least-bad option, but it wants Moscow to bear all the human, material and reputational costs of supporting him, while Washington avoids them but reaps the benefits of Russian actions. Yes, Russians do actually think this way.
Obviously Russia and America, as well as some of America's other allies, actually do have a common interest in opposing ISIS. But Moscow and Washington have genuine differences about how to combat it. Putin is truly convinced that the Assad regime, if not Assad himself, is needed to combat ISIS; he believes there is nobody else in Syria that can do this effectively. The Obama administration seems convinced it is the brutality of the Assad regime that has helped give rise to ISIS. So long as this remains the case, and so long as each side believes its approach is superior, and that the logic of the situation will eventually force the other side to see things its way, Russian-American cooperation in combatting ISIS in Syria is unlikely to proceed very far.
I want to say a few things also about Russian motives for acting in Syria. I suggested that there may be some degree of incoherence in American policy towards Syria. But there's a degree of incoherence in Russian policy as well; the Russians are, in fact, pursuing multiple aims and have multiple motives. For Putin in particular, Syria is actually a domestic Russian political issue. It has real importance for Vladimir Putin, who has staked a lot on support for an ally. It's better for Putin to be seen supporting Assad to the bitter end than knuckling under to America, withdrawing support for Assad, and seeing him fall.
I think Putin sees the Arab Spring and the downfall of a number of authoritarian leaders as setting a bad precedent. In fact, early on in the Arab Spring, Russian statements were asserting that it was really a plot aimed at Russia — at changing its regime, at least in the Muslim regions of Russia. It was a continuation of the color revolutions, which had absolutely no local causes but were engineered by the United States, at least as far as Vladimir Putin is concerned.
This also has an impact, curiously enough, on Putin's relations with the authoritarian rulers of Central Asia. If they doubt Putin's support — as shown by what he may or may not do in Syria — unlike Assad, they have another choice. They can turn to China for support. So I think Putin sees supporting Assad as very important in terms of Russia's position in Central Asia, something they Russians definitely mean to keep. And, by the way, whatever they say about each other, Russia and China are in a competitive relationship.
It's also important to understand that, in terms of the Russian view of the Middle East as a whole, Putin has tended to look at Saudi Arabia in the same way that the United States has tended to look at Iran, at least in the past. That is, as being the source of a lot of problems. The Russian view of Saudi Arabia is that it is not a conservative monarchy, but an Islamic revolutionary regime. Even back in the '90s, you can find Russian official statements blaming jihadists supported by Saudi Arabia for the conflict in Chechnya. And after 9/11, Putin ceaselessly talked about how 15 of the 19 bombers were from Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is what they consider to be the source of evil.
There was a little thaw in Saudi-Russian relations from about 2003 to 2011, but then the Arab Spring came along. Saudi Arabia was involved in opposing both Gadhafi in Libya and Assad in Syria, so this older view of Saudi Arabia came back — at the same time that Moscow is trying to sell weapons and do business with Saudi Arabia. From our point of view, this is mind-boggling. When we don't like a country, like Iran, we simply stop doing business with it. When the Russians don't like someone, though, they usually continue to try doing business.
Part of Moscow's aim is to persuade the United States of the true nature of Saudi Arabia, while at the same time trying to work with Riyadh as well. We saw this last year with the new monarch in Saudi Arabia, and especially his son, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. When Prince Mohammad went to meet with Putin in June, by all accounts they really did hit it off. The prince promised $10 billion worth of investment, Saudi arms purchases, et cetera. They were also going to work together in Syria — at the same time that Putin was working with the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, apparently, about the upcoming Russian intervention in Syria. When the prince met with Putin again this past October, obviously, the mood was a bit different. According to one very informed account, the prince was complaining: Why are you working with the Iranians against us in Syria? Putin's response was, if you really want to contain the Iranians, you've got to work with Moscow. That's what's going to do it.
What they're also doing, then, is trying to work with Iran in Syria and with Assad, while at the same time engaging the major Sunni powers as well. The intervention that Russia launched this past fall was very dramatic. One thing we can be certain of is that, while they have succeeded in keeping the Assad regime alive and possibly even regaining a certain amount of territory, Russian air intervention alone is not going to enable the Assad regime to defeat its various opponents. That's something they can't do. Putin has indicated that he doesn't want to send ground forces, although Russian officials occasionally talk about volunteers going. But even if they do this, it's clear they're not going to win militarily.
Moscow has launched a diplomatic campaign aimed at resolving the Syrian conflict. But, since the Russians are supporting the Assad regime very strongly, it's not clear just how serious this diplomatic effort actually is. Despite the drama of what Putin did and his seeming success, as in Ukraine — which seemed quite successful at first — over time, it doesn't seem all that successful. I think we're seeing the same thing in Syria.
There has been one needless cost that they have suffered, and that is the deterioration of Russian relations with Turkey. To me, this was really amazing; good relations with Turkey had been one of Putin's great successes. They had been doing $30 billion of business a year recently. I think one year it was even $40 billion. Putin was encouraging Erdogan in his anti-Western stance; they seemed to be standing together against the West. But if Putin had really valued maintaining good relations with Turkey, he wouldn't have been flying his aircraft so near that border — but of course he did. Whether or not it was a good idea for Turkey to shoot down the Russian aircraft, you can argue.
Putin didn't have to play it up the way he did; he could have played down the incident. But he decided that Turkey was the new enemy, and now he's cut off much of the bilateral trade and pushed Turkey back toward the West. Is this what he really wanted to do? Is this part of a great master plan? I don't think so.
What does Russia's involvement mean for the United States? Obviously, it does limit what Washington can do. Certainly, Putin is focused on the Libyan example; the Security Council resolution in 2011, authorizing a no-fly zone, led to intervention. He's determined that this is not going to take place in Syria. But, as Putin knows, it doesn't matter if you don't have a Security Council resolution; the United States somestimes intervenes without one.
I think Putin very definitely wants to have a say, to have a role in Syria, to be part of the outcome. The problem, however, is that we don't live in the Cold War anymore, when Soviet-American competition overlaid everything else. Every other conflict in the world had a Soviet-American dimension, and the United States and the USSR were strong enough to restrain their allies to some degree.
I think even if we have a Russian-American agreement on Syria, it's not clear that we will actually have a settlement to the Syrian conflict. The main external actors seem to be Iran, on one side, and Saudi Arabia and certain other Gulf states as well as Turkey, on the other. The real task is to find some kind of reconciliation between the Sunni and the Shia powers. Otherwise we will be headed for the 30 Years' War that someone referred to — or maybe even a Hundred Years' War.
I think the Russia factor obviously complicates American decision making, but the Obama administration's policy has frustrated the Putin administration. On any given day, Moscow is prepared to think of the Obama administration as weak and not knowing what it is doing. On the other hand, at least twice a week they seem to think that he's an incredibly Machiavellian guy who has tricked Moscow, and that the Russians are the ones who are paying the costs in Syria and not the United States.
Putin is obviously a very difficult guy, with highly nationalist, highly combative policies. On the other hand, he also has a pragmatic dimension. He was vehemently opposed to U.S.-led intervention in Iraq but now has very good relations with the Baghdad government. Putin continues to excoriate us for what happened in Libya, but he has amazingly good relations with the internationally recognized Libyan government, as well as with some of the other forces in Libya. They're restoring their contacts.
In terms of the Arab Spring, Putin opposed it. When Mohamed Morsi was president of Egypt, though, Putin had very good relations with him. They met, they did business together, Russia provided assistance. So there's this odd pragmatic strain to Russian policy. When they have to, they compromise. They accept the situation. They're not necessarily a permanent enemy that we can never deal with.
CHARLES LISTER, Resident Fellow, Middle East Institute; Former Visiting Fellow, Brookings Doha Center; Former Analyst and Head, IHS Jane's Terrorism & Insurgency Centre
I very much agree with what our first two speakers have already said today. I will focus on Syria and give a bit more of a live assessment of how things stand, and look back on lessons learned from what's taken place over the last few years. I'm going to aim to be somewhat provocative. This is such an important subject that I don't think one should hold back when assessing the situation and what to do in the future.
In Syria and Iraq, ISIS is probably feeling under more pressure than it has since the dramatic events in the summer of 2014. That is not to say they are losing, necessarily, but they are certainly more stretched than they have been in quite some time. Having said that, the progress towards this point has been painfully slow. It has also provided the organization with the opportunity to expand and acquire the kind of strategic depth and other options that it has done since the summer of 2014 elsewhere around the world. Now we're looking at places like Libya and Egypt and Afghanistan as potential new hot points for ISIS, even if it starts to genuinely lose out in places like Syria and Iraq.
I'm very glad the first speaker talked about the idea of indirect action, working with allies on the ground, focusing on human terrain. But that lesson hasn't been well enough implemented in the Syrian case. There are many options on the table, but for one reason or another, many of them have been ignored. Very often, the easiest options, but not necessarily the best, have been chosen, and there have been fairly negative consequences to some of those decisions.
The first element of this indirect-action approach in Syria and the best known has been the partnership with the Kurds, namely their Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wings, the YPG and the women's YPJ. American partnership with the PYD on the ground in Syria, fighting against ISIS, has been successful. The PYD has demonstrated a fairly remarkable amount of professionalism. Certainly they have taken back ground from ISIS. But I think those results should be placed within the context of the fact that the Kurds have received a fairly substantial amount of support from the United States, including close air support.
The argument could be made that many other opposition forces in Syria could be just as capable, if not more so, of taking back territory from ISIS if they had that kind of support from the U.S. military. I have given the example before that in the very first weeks of 2014, the mainstream opposition in northern Syria took back four-and-a-half provinces from ISIS in six weeks. The Kurds, with U.S. air support, have taken back roughly two-thirds of a combined province and over two provinces in more than a year. So we are looking at progress, but I think it's been painfully slow. We could be doing a lot better with more partners.
The PYD is a complicated movement. It is affiliated with the militant Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). Many of its senior commanders don't have public faces — they don't have Twitter accounts, they don't conduct media interviews — but they identify themselves not as the PYD, but as the PKK. The PYD and its armed wings have begun introducing a new educational curriculum in northeastern Syria that abides by the PKK's socialist kind of ideology, which many Arab tribes are extremely unhappy with. Kurdish is now being taught to children in many parts of the northeast, and Arab tribesmen living there are being encouraged to allow their children to learn Kurdish.
All of this is ruffling feathers under the surface and taking us in a very bad direction, although it may take some time to show. This speaks to the fact that the broader conventional opposition in Syria is deeply hostile to the PYD. The fact that the U.S. government has partnered so closely with it has generated, rightly or wrongly, a perception that Western policy is disconnected from the realities on the ground. And perhaps Western policy is not supportive of the idea of a unitary Syrian state in the future, due to allegations of what the PYD may or may not want for their own future in Syria because of their links to the PKK.
The PYD also has serious geographical limitations, and they realize it. They have openly said they cannot go beyond a certain point in the fight against ISIS; they'll be stepping into Arab territory, and that's not going to get them anywhere. So the U.S. partnership and the use of the PYD as its principal partner in fighting against ISIS in Syria is approaching its limit right now.
In that sense, the establishment of what has been called the Syrian Democratic Forces — essentially a broad coalition heavily dominated still by the PYD but which has incorporated Syrian Christians and some other local tribal forces predominately represented by northeastern Sunni tribes — is a move in the right direction, but it's not nearly enough to convince the broader opposition that the PYD is a legitimate actor within the Syrian context. However, it's also not necessarily enough, at least in my assessment, to actually take those additional steps into Arab territory and take back territory from ISIS.
In terms of fighting ISIS, when we're talking about centers of gravity, there are two: their momentum and their financing. To counter ISIS, we're not only looking to blow up cash or target oil fields. That's not going to degrade or destroy ISIS.
The best way of attacking their financing is to take back the territory. Another obsession in the media over the last 18 months has been that oil is the dominant source of ISIS's income. But most serious studies of this subject have come to the conclusion that the control of territory — taxation as well as extortion from people and businesses and a variety of other economic sectors — is the primary source of income for ISIS. The only way of defeating them is to take back territory. For that very reason, indirect action and working with a broader scope of local allies is really the only way forward. And I don't think we're there yet.
Moving beyond the PYD, probably the next-best example of an attempt at indirect action in Syria is the train-and-equip program. I think most people will admit this was a fairly dismal failure; there have even been acting and existing administration officials who have recently come out and basically admitted it themselves. The train-and-equip mission essentially aimed to partner with local forces in Syria who the U.S. military hoped would essentially drop their fight against the regime in favor of fighting against ISIS, with American support.
The reason for the failure is that the very objective is totally disconnected from realities on the ground. As a result, recruitment for the train-and-equip program was miniscule. And many of the people recruited either weren't socially rooted into the dynamics on the ground, or were not the kinds of reliable personalities that the broader opposition were willing to trust when they were redeployed into Syria. I think it's very well-known what happened when the first two batches of train-and-equip-troops went in.
This was an unfortunate example of minimalist or overly risk-averse thinking about how to team up with local forces on the ground, and who to team up with. Of course, there's been a variety of, unfortunately, amusing and ironic stories about how the first batch, for example, was sent back into Syria during the first week of Ramadan. The commander of this first batch immediately put in a request for a bunch of his fighters to be sent back to their families for two weeks of leave. And it was granted.
So as soon as they went into the country, they all went home. Many of them traveled almost 100 miles inside Syria into deeply hostile territory, sometimes into regime-held areas, to go and be with their families for two weeks. Then, by the time they went up north, all of the enemies of U.S. policy, namely al-Qaeda, had figured everything out. They knew where the bases were and who the local connections were, and as soon as they teamed up two weeks later, they were attacked. So there's a real shortcoming in strategic thinking. Despite the fact that we recognize this as the right way forward, we haven't gone about it in the right way.
The third-best example here is what I call the CIA's "vet and equip" program, which has been going on for a long time. It started very small and has since become larger over the last two-and-a-half years, led by the CIA, often working with regional countries, which is an inherent advantage. It does help root you in the political dynamics and establish a better relationship of trust with other opposition forces. This effort has established support relationships with at least 40 separate armed groups in northern and southern Syria. Only two of them have been attacked and defeated by hostile al-Qaeda forces. But 38-plus continue to fight to this day, often in areas dominated by hostile al-Qaeda forces. They have retained a heavy footprint within local dynamics. Of course, this is fighting against the regime and not ISIS, but it has shown, I think, that it is possible to establish relationships with local allies, to support them with regional allies, and buttress them into a position of influence within their local area that the train-and-equip program never even got close to.
It's also a nationally focused program. It hasn't focused just on the north or just on the south or just on Damascus. It is nationwide. For obvious reasons, not a great deal of information is released from the source, but this program deserves more praise than it has necessarily received. Of course, one big criticism of this program has been that some of these forces have at times cooperated with al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. It's very easy for us, thousands of miles away, to say, "therefore you're a terrorist." But, speaking as someone who's spent a lot of time with these groups and has gotten to know their realities, I can say they're fighting for their lives every single minute of the day. They still have family in Syria who are being bombed, who are being attacked, who are being shelled by the regime, who are being attacked by Hezbollah, and who are now facing Russian airstrikes.
Unfortunately, one actor out of dozens, if not hundreds, on the ground, is an al-Qaeda affiliate. My personal experience in knowing these groups is that their cooperation with them has absolutely no connection to their ideological leanings at all. It's simply a reflection of their desperation. I think what's to be lauded is that the CIA program hasn't seen this as a reason to cut off certain organizations. The establishment of personal relationships between vetters and the guys on the ground has meant that the trust is genuine, that because they cooperate with someone we don't like, it doesn't mean they are one and the same.
I think ISIS is feeling the pressure, but there is a very long way to go. In Syria, ISIS has demonstrated very recently the capacity to launch large-scale offensives. They've captured a huge amount of weaponry in eastern Deir ez-Zor province on the Iraqi border, which will almost certainly keep them fighting for a long time to come. They've previously captured huge weapons stores from the Iraqi government, from opposition forces in Syria or from the Syrian regime and then several weeks later launched a major offensive somewhere else. It's fairly likely that we'll see, in the weeks to come in northern Aleppo, a real choke point for the opposition. It also happens to be a very complex battle theater right now, with Russian airstrikes, regime airstrikes, the occasional American airstrikes, opposition forces, Kurds, ISIS, et cetera. And I expect ISIS to look to exploit that.
Where to go from here? I spoke about attacking ISIS financing by taking back territory. That involves a far broader teaming up with local allies on the ground and a much less risk-averse assessment of who they are. One of two ways forward now is to blunt their momentum. This is very much linked to the fight against ISIS financing, neutralizing their capacity to fight on multiple fronts at once, which has been their biggest strength over the last two years or so. This means bringing the fight to ISIS on multiple fronts. It doesn't mean focusing all your resources on Ramadi and then thinking about Mosul and Raqqa and elsewhere later. It means fighting on all of those fronts.
ISIS has demonstrated an ability to redeploy forces rapidly from front to front in order to defend or attack. It's only been able to exploit that capability because we have an Iraq-first strategy. Later we started to develop somewhat of a Syria strategy, but they're not in sync. There hasn't been an anti-ISIS fight on multiple fronts coordinated in the way that I would suggest that we need to develop now.
On a broader point, our allies don't have to look exactly like us or talk like us. I hate to say it, but I hear from Syrians all the time: "You went to such-and-such a group because they wear Oakley sunglasses or they wear baseball caps. You went to them because they talk about democracy, democracy, democracy. But guess what? They don't actually mean it." There are many people in Syria who, I know for a fact, could be excellent American allies but don't speak or look like us. This is not always based on religion; very often it's cultural or traditional.
I will briefly talk about the effects of the Russian intervention, which have been fairly transformative. In four months of Russian airstrikes in Syria, at least a quarter of a million people have been displaced from their homes. IDP camps in northern Syria are overflowing this winter. If we think the refugee flows into Europe were bad in 2015, wait until we see what happens in 2016. Syrians weren't willing to get on boats without lifejackets last winter. This winter, boats are leaving every few hours. That's a sign of how people are thinking about the conflict now. If they are that desperate, the flows as spring starts could potentially be quite huge. I'll praise our second speaker for giving such a balanced view of Russia; perhaps mine will seem less balanced. But I think Russia has learned from its ally in Damascus that the most effective way of fighting against the opposition is to blockade, besiege and starve opposition areas. They've done this very effectively over the last four months.
Although the Assad regime hasn't made huge gains, the gains it has made in the last four months have transformed the conflict. The chances of success for the political process in Geneva look remarkably slim now because of those gains and how the conflict has been transformed. The opposition is really feeling the pressure on the ground, and that has had direct effects on their interest in engaging in a political process. Six months ago, their interest was clear; they were very willing to talk. But this kind of kneel-or-starve strategy, which Russia and Assad and Hezbollah and many other militia forces on the ground have implemented, has been brutally effective in slowly taking back territory. Assad has repeatedly used the term "cleanse" in terms of shaping his military strategy on the ground. He is literally looking to cleanse his population and separate the good from the bad. And this kneel-or-starve policy, as I say, has been the hallmark of how to do that.
It's been very well-documented, so I won't list examples, that Russia is using cluster munitions in Syria. It has certainly targeted aid convoys from Turkey on at least a weekly basis over the last two months. It has allegedly targeted mosques, schools, hospitals and IDP camps over the last four months. Whether or not those allegations are true, perception in Syria is much more important than truth. The perception is that Russia is no longer a party we can negotiate with. This is providing another knock-on effect on current political efforts.
More broadly, the opposition forces now are being asked to sign on to the political talks. Their argument is, we will have no role in any talks until humanitarian provisions are put in place. They mean at least the free flow of aid, the cessation of what they call indiscriminate bombardment, perhaps the release of some detainees, and the ending of the sieges. There's no sign that that's anywhere near close. The United Nations said yesterday that they're now going to refocus on trying to push humanitarian confidence-building measures as a way of ensuring that the first round of talks in Geneva take place. But I think we're a very long way away from seeing the regime — let alone Russia or Hezbollah — agree to such humanitarian provisions.
The final point I'll make is this: please don't forget al-Qaeda, though ISIS is everyone's obsession at the moment. In my study of Jabhat al-Nusra, one thing I have learned is that they are going to be in Syria for the long haul. They have used the last four-and-a-half to five years to deeply root themselves in society and in revolutionary dynamics. The result is that most of the opposition simply can't entertain the idea of turning against al-Qaeda. Yes, they're powerful, but many opposition people will say that they haven't often demonstrated anything counter to the revolution. So, Syrians say, until they do, why should we attack them? If they're fighting alongside us against the regime, why should we? This is a real danger for Syria, but also for the international community, because they're operating more quietly. They're not carrying out spectacular attacks. They're not releasing statements declaring war against America. But they're al-Qaeda, and they are deeply rooted in Syrian dynamics.
However, things are slowly changing. The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra recently did a video interview with several Syrian opposition journalists in which, in subtle ways, he undermined the respect and the history of the Free Syrian Army. Although it isn't a single organization but an umbrella, the power of the idea of the Free Syrian Army is such that his disrespect sparked something in people's minds in Syria that hasn't been around throughout the conflict. People have started subtly, albeit not in public, to question the long-term motives of their ally of convenience. Perhaps that's something the United States and its allies can look to exploit in the months to come.
AUDREY KURTH CRONIN, Distinguished Service Professor and Director, International Security Program at George Mason University; Author, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns; Author, "ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group," Foreign Affairs (March to April 2015).
I'd like to shift the conversation to a broader discussion of American policy and how we look at the challenges of ISIS and al-Qaeda. I agree with many of the points made thus far, but I also think that U.S. policy makers are fundamentally behind in putting together an effective framework for ISIS. Instead, we're trying to adapt structures that have been in place for 10 or 15 years now to fight al-Qaeda. What follows discusses the al-Qaeda movement, as well as ISIS, and identifies crucial distinctions in U.S. policy with respect to each.
The United States and its allies are using tools and frameworks that were custom-made for the wrong enemy. They were built for al-Qaeda, and now we're trying to adjust them to address ISIS. Unfortunately, classic counterterrorism is not sufficient. ISIS is not al-Qaeda. It's not even an outgrowth or a part of al-Qaeda. It's a successor to al-Qaeda. This is not the next phase in the global al-Qaeda movement; it's the post-al-Qaeda jihadist threat. Yes, the groups were once formally aligned, and al-Qaeda remains dangerous; it is not defeated. Its affiliates in Yemen and North Africa are particularly concerning. But the outlines of the next phase of this struggle are coming into focus, and the United States is failing to adjust.
There are fundamental differences between al-Qaeda and ISIS — their origins, characteristics, strategies, approaches, vulnerabilities and aims. Al-Qaeda and its associates are terrorist organizations. They're small in number, in the dozens or the hundreds. They attack civilians. Generally speaking, they do not hold territory. And they don't directly confront military forces. ISIS uses ruthless terrorist tactics and has very similar rhetoric, but it has evolved to become much more than a terrorist organization. ISIS is a conventional army of some 30,000 fighters that holds territory, has extensive military capabilities, controls lines of communication, commands infrastructure, is independently funded, and engages in sophisticated military operations.
Al-Qaeda came into being in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Its formative experience was the 10-year war against Soviet occupation, when thousands of religious mujahedeen, including Osama bin Laden, converged upon the country and attacked Soviet troops. ISIS came into being because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then blossomed in U.S.-run prisons, grew through the Syrian civil war, and exploded after the 2013 killings of Sunni Iraqi protesters by the Shia-dominated Maliki government in Baghdad. ISIS is a direct descendant of the group that in 2004 became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), but now it also includes Iraqi Sunni tribes, former anti-U.S. insurgents, and secular Baathist military officers who want to regain the power and security they had during the Saddam Hussein regime.
If the United States uses the same strategy and frameworks to counter ISIS that we have used to counter the al-Qaeda movement, we will fail. Let's go quickly through the background and current differences between al-Qaeda and ISIS. They're partly rooted in their histories.
The closest historical parallel to ISIS, I think, is not the al-Qaeda movement, but the armed Islamic group, the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) in Algeria. To refresh your memories, in 1991 the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was about to win popular democratic elections, when the Algerian Army executed a bloodless coup and dissolved the FIS by official decree. With FIS members in jail, radicals formed the GIA, an extreme and violent faction.
What followed was unconstrained carnage, with massacres, terrorism and atrocities on all sides. The GIA's numbers grew, including criminals who were released from jail and Salafist fighters who had returned from Afghanistan. They made appalling violence their trademark. Their purpose was to intimidate opponents, eliminate moderate elements, and force ordinary people to support them. GIA leader Zouabri put it this way: "In war there is no neutrality. Except for those who are with us, all of the others are renegades." The GIA engaged in a very deliberate policy of polarization, removing any moderate middle that could stabilize and govern within Algeria.
Their hyperviolent, pseudo-religious nihilism soon evolved beyond terrorism to full-scale civil war. Members of the GIA massacred whole villages, hacked old people and newborns to death, and slaughtered women and children as if they were animals. They later beheaded more than 70 journalists, stating, "Those who fight us with the pen shall die by the sword." They killed Jews, Christians and moderate Muslims. Over the course of the decade, their communiques became increasingly perverse and bloodcurdling: "Blood and corpses create glory, and death creates life," read one of them. The violence peaked in 1997, but it did not end until the early 2000s. At least 100,000 Algerians died, though the numbers are highly contested. We don't know exactly, because all the journalists were dead. Many more simply disappeared.
Al-Qaeda leaders over the course of the movement have decried the Algerian experience, describing it as exactly what they want to avoid. Over and over in strategy documents, statements and letters, leaders such as al-Suri and al-Maqdisi urged avoidance of that approach. To quote al-Libbi, "They destroyed themselves with their own hands, with their lack of reason, delusions, their ignoring of people, their alienation of them through oppression, deviance and severity, coupled with a lack of kindness, sympathy and friendliness. Their enemy did not defeat them. Rather, they defeated themselves, were consumed and fell."
Al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri has specifically pointed to the lessons of what he calls "the Algerian events," most famously in his 2005 letter to Zarqawi about AQI's violence in Iraq. After Zarqawi beheaded the U.S. hostages Nicholas Berg and Owen Armstrong, Zawahiri wrote to Zarqawi saying:
Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages. You shouldn't be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the sheik of the slaughterers and so forth. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq.
Now I'm not implying here that Zawahiri is a great guy, some kind of humanist: he was in favor of killing the hostages quietly with a shot to the head instead of publicly beheading them. He strongly believed that the gory image Zarqawi was projecting through shocking videos and other media would alienate the broader Muslim ummah against what al-Qaeda was trying to accomplish, which was widespread mobilization behind the al-Qaeda movement.
By contrast, ISIS is consciously mimicking the excesses of the GIA all over social media. And they're extraordinarily good at it. ISIS grew rapidly because of the Syrian civil war, but even more so the failure of democratic governance in Iraq. Baathist military officers, Sunni troops, tribes and factions in Iraq were all promised representation after the United States withdrew. Instead, they got exclusion and repression. Like the GIA, ISIS has now embarked on a strategy of ruthless polarization, especially polarization along sectarian lines. And it's working. Having gained power in Syria, ISIS easily conquered Iraqi cities and towns, because Sunnis welcomed them and even led their military operations. And in this case, unlike in Algeria, there's no brutal army crackdown in response, for good or ill.
What does all this mean for the United States and our frameworks, policies and ways of thinking about these two threats? How should we respond? With counterterrorism? It's very tempting. Using counterterrorism tools we've had considerable success with respect to al-Qaeda. We've poured enormous energy and resources into counterterrorism bureaucracies, authorities and funding lines. It is natural. Bureaucracies take a long time to turn around.
Some of it does make sense. Continuing robust police and intelligence operations and cooperation is vital to minimizing the ability of ISIS to inspire or carry out operations abroad. That's classic counterterrorism. Unfortunately, beyond that, it doesn't fully fit. Just because ISIS has jihadist rhetoric and engaged in terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, that does not mean it's the same as al-Qaeda or even an affiliate. Many techniques that were custom made for al-Qaeda cannot simply be redirected to fight this particular threat. Here are four examples:
First, leadership decapitation through drone strikes. Some 75 percent of the leaders of the core al-Qaeda group have been killed by raids and armed drones. The technology is well-suited to going after targets hiding in rural areas. There has been some success in using drones to take out leadership within Pakistan and Yemen, for example, especially when there was imminent danger of attack. But that's a tactical success. The broad public backlash to the drone strikes used against al-Qaeda was considered tolerable because of immediate tactical gains, even as it built widespread opposition and fueled anger more generally over the longer term.
What about ISIS? Fighters tend to cluster in urban areas, where they are surrounded by buildings and civilian populations. ISIS governs a functioning pseudo-state with a complex administrative structure. At the top is the emirate, which consists of Baghdadi and two deputies, both of whom formerly served as generals in the Saddam-era Iraqi Army. Below them is a civilian bureaucracy supervised by about a dozen administrators. Although it's hardly the model government that ISIS tries to project in its propaganda videos, this pseudo-state would carry on without Baghdadi or his closest lieutenants. Killing the leaders will not defeat it and would be difficult in the local terrain.
Second, disrupting terrorist financing. Cutting off al-Qaeda's funding has been one of counterterrorism's most impressive success stories. I credit you for that, Will [Wechsler]. I credit all those who worked hard at it. Nothing I'm saying is meant as criticism of the gains we've made in that arena. A global network for countering terrorist financing emerged after September 11, 2001, backed by the UN, the EU and hundreds of cooperating governments. The result has been a serious squeeze. By 2005, al-Qaeda was asking its affiliates for financial help. By 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department claimed that al-Qaeda was "struggling to secure steady financing to plan and execute terrorist attacks."
As for ISIS, I agree here with Charles that fighting their financing is a different kind of challenge. They're much more oriented toward the territory that they control. They don't rely on outside funding to the same extent. ISIS systematically took over key oil assets in eastern Syria beginning in 2012 and then seized oil-operating parts of Iraq two years later. They steal jewelry, cars, machinery, livestock; they charge tolls, sell antiquities and ransom hostages. They even earn revenue from growing cotton and wheat in the breadbasket of Syria, which is Raqqa. Their wide-ranging extortion racket is lucrative and successful. It targets local businesses within the territory they control, including cellphone-service providers, water-delivery companies, electric utilities — the list goes on and on. Classic terrorist-financing tools cannot defeat armies holding territory.
Third, our deradicalization programs. With al-Qaeda, radicalization occurred through religious arguments and an intellectual message of a kind of twisted altruism. The core group cast the establishment of a caliphate as a long-term, almost utopian, goal. Educating and mobilizing ordinary Muslims came first. Al-Qaeda is mainly groups of men fighting in remote places. Publicly the model has a severe aesthetic; sex is promised after martyrdom. Even for the angriest young Muslim man, this might be a bit of a hard sell.
Let's look at ISIS. I would argue that the process they're engaging in is not radicalization, at least not in the same sense; it's more recruitment through power, agency and identity. It's a very different message, addressed to men and sometimes women, in alarming numbers — indeed, sometimes the message is even aimed at children. It's about immediate gratification. The caliphate is now. ISIS operates in urban settings and offers recruits instant opportunities to fight and die. It posts exhilarating podcasts by individual fighters on the front lines. ISIS is far more effective at using social media than core al-Qaeda — well ahead even of al-Qaeda's more media-savvy affiliates, like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The group also procures sexual partners for its male recruits. Some young women volunteer after meeting a jihadist hottie online. Others follow their husbands or are trafficked there and enslaved. ISIS is extremely adept at getting this message out and targeting it very effectively, even to specific individuals they want to recruit. Teenagers are attracted to the Islamic State before they understand what it is — and not only Muslim teenagers. Theirs is a short-term demonstration of power; no vision is needed. ISIS promotes conquest in every dimension, and that includes the sexual. It's about immediate agency. It's about being successful.
Fourth, identifying a group's targeting errors, publicizing them so as to undermine their appeal and facilitate a backlash. This is a classic counterterrorism approach, and it's been effective historically. It put al-Qaeda on the defensive. Zawahiri has been keenly sensitive to the backlash engendered whenever al-Qaeda kills the very people it is trying to attract, members of the Muslim ummah. Attacks in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Spain, Jordan and the UK all resulted in Muslim casualties that outraged members of Islamic communities everywhere. The group began to steadily lose popular support starting in about 2007. In Muslim-majority countries, the shift was dramatic, according to Gallup and Pew polls — rigorously collected annual measurements of public opinion about al-Qaeda and its terrorist attacks.
It is not the same with respect to ISIS. Like the Algerian GIA, this group is killing or exploiting Western journalists, for example, so that they can control the message, publicly beheading them to intimidate and show their power. They seem impervious to the risk of a backlash, because their core message is all about power and revenge, not legitimacy in the sense that Westerners think of it. Their brutality is designed to intimidate foes and suppress dissent. Revulsion among Muslims might eventually undermine ISIS — and I firmly hope that is the case — but, for the time being, our focus on their savagery only helps them augment the image of their strength. This, in turn, inspires angry or alienated young people throughout the world to carry out attacks in places like the United States, Europe and elsewhere. We help perpetuate that image for them.
How about a second possible framework, counterinsurgency? Beginning in 2006, the United States called al-Qaeda a global insurgency. The group hijacked local agendas and persuaded local groups to turn nationalist campaigns into al-Qaeda-associated affiliates. There was exploitable tension between local nationalist aims and al-Qaeda and its broader global movement. Some see ISIS as the latest outgrowth in that worldwide struggle. And it is true that many local groups are exploiting or taking advantage of the ISIS megaphone, associating what they are doing with the Islamic State, even when there is no logistical trail, and it's not exactly what the nature or source of the inspiration was.
Regarding Iraq, since ISIS's dramatic 2014 territorial advances, there's been a lot of talk in the United States about resurrecting the 2006 surge. Many Americans still think of Iraq as if we were in occupation there. Many of those now aligned with ISIS are Sunni insurgent groups who attacked coalition troops during the occupation and then became part of the Sunni awakening. Some argue that the U.S. military should return in larger numbers to draw them to our side, as we did during the surge. But there are vast differences between the situation today and the one we faced in 2006. The logic of counterinsurgency does not suit the struggle against ISIS. For one thing, of course, we're no longer in occupation. At the height of the surge, the United States had 165,000 troops in Iraq, up against a smaller force than ISIS, alongside a Syrian state that was actually intact.
Washington can send in more troops, but it cannot lend legitimacy to a government that it does not control. ISIS is being led by highly trained, capable and advanced Iraqi Baathists, who know American techniques and habits because we trained them — and, to some extent, with American equipment that was left in the country, also armed them. Now, they have M1A1 tanks, armed Humvees, MRAPs, 155 millimeter Howitzers and so on. I think it's ironic that we were reluctant to arm the Syrian moderates because we feared that weapons would fall into the wrong hands.
The former Iraqi Baathist military is running this campaign. Local commanders are given mission orders. They're very sophisticated in their military tactics and objectives and, to some degree, they're backed by a functioning pseudo-state. Fault lines may again appear between the group's secular former Iraqi army officers, Sunni tribal leaders, and Sunni resistance fighters, on the one hand, and its veteran jihadists, on the other. But if they do, it will more likely result from missteps by ISIS than our policies.
The so-called hearts-and-minds approach that we focused on for so long in the global war on terrorism will not work here. It would be misguided. ISIS is not interested in local populations' support, and right now they don't need it. Even as the indigenous population tries to flee ISIS-controlled territory, the group continues to attract outside recruits. They want to kill, conquer and control — in that order of priority. ISIS doesn't want to be popular, they want to be powerful.
That leads us to the third possibility: conventional war. Some in Washington and on the campaign trail are urging us to send in more troops with the goal of completely destroying ISIS now. That makes for good soundbites. But strategy is about matching ends and means. There's a sharp contrast between the rhetorical statements of presidential candidates and what it would actually take to defeat a conventional army.
Surely we should know better than to believe in instant, cost-free solutions, given our experience. Our goal in the wars of the past 15 years, at a cost of $1.6 trillion and the commitment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops and the loss of almost 7,000 American lives, has been to defeat the threat of violent extremism and transform the Middle East. Have we succeeded? More to the point, such a deployment would play directly into the pseudo-religious ISIS narrative and its end-of-days argument about confronting the crusaders in Dabiq and heading toward the apocalypse. A massing of U.S. or Western troops would give ISIS exactly the sort of propaganda victory that could draw more recruits to their cause, particularly if those forces were seen as allied with the Shiites.
Where does this leave us? The sobering fact is that the United States and its allies have no good strategic military options in their fight against ISIS. Neither counterterrorism nor counterinsurgency nor conventional warfare is likely to afford a clear-cut, immediate victory against ISIS. For the time being, at least, despite the bad press the word containment gets because it sounds passive, I still firmly believe the best and most realistic policy that matches ends and means and is most likely to succeed over the long term is offensive containment. It combines a limited use of force — including airstrikes, cutting off supplies and so forth — with a major diplomatic and economic effort to weaken ISIS, gradually take back territory, and align the interests of the many countries threatened by the group.
ISIS is not merely an American problem. The wars in Iraq and Syria involve not only regional players but also major global powers. We've heard a lot about the incentives, policies and thinking of the Russians, but we also need to think about Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. They must develop a common economic, military and diplomatic approach to a solution in Syria (as hard as that will be), to ensure that the ISIS pseudo-state is treated as a global pariah. Offensive containment is a strategy for victory. This approach has resulted in gradually removing about 25 percent of ISIS's territory thus far. But it's not easy, it's not quick, it's not instant gratification. And there are risks.
In some respects, ISIS's incentives to project force abroad increase as it loses territory and is desperate to shift global perceptions away from its losses. As horrible as it is to think about, terrorism is a weak tactic. Asymmetrical enemies often resort to it when they are losing a conventional war. In the short term, there is no one-to-one correlation between loss of territory and a reduction in terrorist attacks abroad. For this reason, our response must also include the robust police and intelligence cooperation I mentioned at the outset, continued efforts to counter violent extremism, and above all more aid for displaced persons and refugees who are even more terrified by ISIS than we are.
I have been shocked over the last several years at how the United States and its Western allies failed to stem the tide of this humanitarian crisis long ago, when we could have provided more funding and support for displaced persons in places like Jordan, Lebanon and other parts of the region. That would have been a smart, forward-looking, strategic step more powerful than any use of military force, not to mention also the right thing to do.
Again, some of these tools do overlap with counterterrorism; but they should be tailored for an enemy that is not al-Qaeda and is more akin to a dangerous state actor. Over the long run, allowing ISIS to maintain a sanctuary in Iraq and Syria entails even greater risks of more serious and sophisticated violence directed against us and our allies.
In sum, the United States and its allies must move beyond outmoded forms of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, while also resisting pressure to cross the threshold into full-fledged war. For the foreseeable future, offensive containment is the best U.S. policy available.
DR. MATTAIR: A question from the floor: Why did the current administration choose to not get involved earlier in Syria? And I would add: Why is ISIS not our number-one priority in the region right now?
MR. WECHSLER: When the administration was first looking at the Syrian, Iraq and Islamic State problems, there was an overestimation of the likelihood of Assad's fall. The administration thought he would fall rapidly, at an early stage in the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, that was a fairly widespread assessment at the time. It has been proven wrong. I think there was an underestimation of the risks of a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and the resulting limitations of U.S. influence there.
I think the record is pretty clear that there was, in the intelligence community and others — various members have been very open about this — an underestimation of the strength of the Islamic State early on, when it went under different names. There were different approaches to the estimation of risk. You had, at a certain point in the process years ago, Secretary Hillary Clinton leading an effort with the director of the CIA, supported by the secretary of defense, to do a more robust training and equipping program for the Syrian elements. That request was denied.
Then there's another factor that doesn't get much attention but should: legal authorities. It hasn't been discussed here, but it's vitally important. The United States does not possess standing legal authority to overthrow another country's government — for good reason, I might add. It does possess standing legal authority to offer help, should a country request it. The domestic legal authority is then supported by international law as well. So if you want to understand why there's a difference between the Iraqi and the Syrian contexts, or why to some degree we ended up with a policy that doesn't make sense with local realities in Syria, where we were asking people to not fight the Assad regime but only to fight the Islamic State, one place to look is the law, which says that we can come to Iraq's assistance and fight against the Islamic State there. But Syria's not asking us to come to their assistance. We don't have standing legal authority to overthrow the Assad regime. This doesn't mean that there aren't other ways that different administrations have addressed these problems, but legal authorities are critically important when making policy in the current administration.
AMB. THEROS: I'd like to suggest another thought. We know deep down, but haven't really articulated it properly, that ISIS to many people is a manifestation of a larger issue, the shifting of tectonic plates in the region. ISIS is only one part of a problem. Turkey sees ISIS in one context; we see it in another; Saudi Arabia sees it in another. This is very much like 1848, when Europe turned upside down. The revolutions were crushed, but, as one German friend of mine said, the 1848 revolution ended in 1946. This may be why I believe that ISIS is not the priority.
MR. LISTER: Why were we not involved earlier? For one thing, there was certainly an expectation that the opposition was going to be more successful more quickly than turned out to be the case. On the other hand, there was a fairly long period of time, from the start of the protests in February/March 2011 until the summer of 2012 before the opposition showed any potential to win the revolution. That's a whole year when some kind of policy could have been developed. But I guess Libya would also be an explanation. There was one intervention already underway. If you want to make the legal argument, you could probably say there are ways around it; we did intervene in Libya without the express permission or invitation of the government there.
MR. WECHSLER: But fully in accordance with international law. All I'm saying is that, if you're trying to understand current U.S. policy, a full appreciation of domestic and international law is critical to understanding why some decisions are made and why others are not.
MR. LISTER: I agree with you. I also think what is often not talked about is that in the very first stages of the militarization of the revolution, U.S. intelligence had already spotted the arrival of al-Qaeda in Iraq commanders into Syria. Certainly in Washington, that was a key source of concern, whether or not it was spoken about publicly, regarding the potential path ahead in Syria.
I'd like to make one more point. I heard a recent comment from former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said, "We've got it all wrong. Assad was never our enemy, and we should never have shaped Syria around that frame." I think that's just patently false. You don't have to frame yourself within the Syrian revolutionary years to say whether or not Assad is our enemy.
Going back to the Iraq occupation, the Assad regime and Syrian military intelligence were directly involved for periods of time in busing foreign fighters every day from the Damascus and Aleppo airports to the Iraqi border. I don't think anyone's ever done a study of it, but the number of American soldiers killed by foreign fighters moved by Assad into Iraq is probably quite high.
The Assad regime has been an avowed enemy of the United States and its allies for a very long time, albeit covertly. And throughout the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime has played an equally significant role in facilitating the growth of groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, through the release of Islamist prisoners who went on to establish a variety of extremist groups in Syria. Many of these figures don't have a very public face, but they're in the top ranks of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and a variety of other jihadist organizations in Syria.
The Assad regime purposely released those people with the explicit knowledge that they would go on to establish these kinds of groups. It's up to us in the West to recognize that kind of behavior, and the implications that it's had, and then to make judgements afterwards.
DR. MATTAIR: When we chose this topic, it was not long after the attacks in Paris. Can the panel assess the risk of such an attack taking place here in the United States? Can any of you speak to the topic of conventional armed attacks against ISIS by the United States? There are some pretty good scholars in Washington who advocate that and say we could do it with a relatively small number of forces, let's say 8,000 to 12,000. Why are they wrong?
DR. CRONIN: I think it's inevitable that there will be additional terrorist attacks in the United States. I don't think that they'll be of the scale of the Paris attacks; the contexts are quite different. But, especially because the United States is inadvertently helping to increase ISIS's media profile, it's more successful in reaching out to people who are frustrated and want to sign onto their narrative. I am also extremely concerned about the degree to which we are enhancing their core strategy of polarization by making unbelievably irresponsible statements in the context of our presidential election.
MR. WECHSLER: We would have already had far more such attacks if not for the continuous work of the FBI and the police departments. It's not like the terrorists aren't trying. The reason there hasn't been a greater number of attacks — and we've unfortunately had some already — is because of the good work of literally thousands and thousands of people across the United States every single day. In part, the American public is at risk of missing this reality because the law-enforcement personnel have been so successful. But the threat of these kinds of attacks is real.
MR. LISTER: I absolutely agree with what's been said already. I think attacks of some form are probably inevitable. The only thing I would add is, don't forget about al-Qaeda. They are still perfectly capable of carrying out a spectacular attack in America of the sort that we fear ISIS might carry out in another way. We mustn't get too focused on one organization when there's one we've been fighting for a very long time that still wants to carry out another 9/11 or a small bombing in Times Square or somewhere else.
DR. KATZ: It's clear that such an attack can't be ruled out. The real question is, what would be the impact of such an attack? One possibility is that we'll decide we've had enough and we're not going to be involved anymore. I don't think that's going to be the American reaction. Certainly, with regard to the terrorist attacks, the French government seems to see itself as being at war. The other possibility is that we lash out, we overreact, we intervene somewhere, as we did after 9/11. Is that what the terrorists actually want? We have to make sure that we keep our head. We should not play into doing what the terrorists want, whether it's too much or too little.
MR. WECHSLER: It would be a significant mistake for us to put tens of thousands of troops on the ground inside Iraq and Syria to fight this ourselves. We had problems doing it before, and we didn't solve all the issues. Even without those tens of thousands of ground forces, there will still be a need for U.S. military direct action, though. As I said in my comments, direct action in these types of campaigns is almost never decisive. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be a component of our strategy; it just can't be the core of our strategy.
There's going to be a role for U.S. airpower. There's going to be a role for discreet, targeted, direct actions when required, for hostage rescues and for raids on certain facilities. And there's going to be a significant role for U.S. forces to be training and equipping and advising and assisting and accompanying missions inside Iraq and Syria. Those are very dangerous missions.
This requires significant numbers of people, but it is very different from a scenario where we are occupying a country, where we are the ones taking on the fight in the first place. A direct-action campaign takes a long period of time, but it can be successful. Again, I point to Colombia and the Philippines and, to a degree even now, Somalia.
DR. MATTAIR: All of you spoke about the importance of working with partners in combating ISIS. How would you assess how well those partnerships are working now? I'm speaking about Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Some of them are saying that it's difficult for them to throw themselves into this when they are not sure that we have enough skin in the game. We are not as involved as they would like us to be, particularly in countering Russia and Iran and Assad. How are the areas of cooperation developing with those countries? And what are we saying to them to alleviate their concerns about our intentions?
DR. KATZ: I think we need to do more, obviously. Tom, you and I were in Riyadh in September 2014 for a Saudi Foreign Ministry conference in which it was made clear to us that there was a lot of concern about the pursuit of the Iranian nuclear accord. I personally think it was a good thing to have done. On the other hand, I think an effort should have been made to reassure our traditional allies in the region that we were going to continue to work with them, and not simply give Iran a free pass.
And they certainly have reason to worry about Iran. Look at Iranian activity in Iraq and Syria. And they believe that Iran is active in Yemen and Bahrain, and that more needed to be done by the United States to counter Tehran. Then, when they don't see us doing anything, they start to act on their own. That was part of the problem in Syria. Not seeing American leadership, some of our allies decided they had better do what they needed to do. I think it's fairly understandable.
There's going to have to be a greater American diplomatic effort. Managing alliances is difficult. It's in some ways more complicated than dealing with adversaries. You don't have to worry about hurting the feelings of your opponents. But you do have to be concerned about your friends. I think that's something we have to pay attention to.
MR. LISTER: I agree. More needs to be done. There's a lot of suspicion and paranoia in the region that the United States is diverting its traditional alliances in the Middle East onto another track. And whether you believe that or not, perception is very often more important than fact. The perception is certainly that the United States is almost unilaterally pursuing rapprochement with Iran and ignoring its traditional allies in the region. This has had major implications with regard to the ability to develop a genuinely unified and synchronized strategy against ISIS, but it's also had a knock-on impact on the ability to develop a genuinely durable political track on Syria. While you do have all of the key states sitting around the table agreeing in principle to certain ideas, the established belief in the region is that there is very little actual agreement around that table. That is particularly the case between Iran and, for example, the Gulf states and Turkey, but also between the Gulf states and Turkey and the United States. And I don't see any movement being made to rectify that situation.
DR. MATTAIR: Charles, you know the cast of characters on the ground very well. Who are the partners on the ground inside Syria that we could be working with to change the situation and increase prospects for a diplomatic resolution that would lead to Assad's departure and allow everyone to concentrate on ISIS?
MR. LISTER: I would build on what the CIA appears to have done with regional partners in the country — roughly 40 groups on the ground. Those relationships are solid, but the scale of support provided to them is still kind of minimal. I would argue for expanding them. Those 40 groups would be worth building on, but there is a variety of other movements in key strategic areas of the country where, for example, jihadists do not have a stranglehold over the broader dynamics. Probably one of the most important examples in that respect is Aleppo. If ISIS launches a major offensive in this thin strip of northern Aleppo, between the regime and Kurdish territory in the west and ISIS territory in the east, that's of massive significance to the entire conflict in Syria. Turkey will probably not allow it to happen.
In any case, there are a number of groups. Fastaqm Kama Umrat, for example, is a very well-known Aleppo-rooted movement that is inherently moderate. It's been in Aleppo since the very beginning of the fighting in Aleppo city. It has extraordinarily minimal contact with the Western world because it has operated within alliances with other organizations that the West hasn't necessarily liked.
This movement has a highly capable political leadership who have begun to reach out to some European states in the last few months, and with some success, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of reciprocity on the U.S. side. These people are fighting on the front line against ISIS, sitting there in the trenches, fighting every single day. They have been defending towns that, if they fell, everything will fall.
They have, through other groups supported by the United States, got the phone numbers of various people. And they have attempted at times to call in airstrikes. They said, listen, we are absolutely on the precipice of losing everything, and they've made phone calls. When they're answered, they just say, sorry, we can't do anything, and put the phone down. Most of the time, they're not answered. There's an amazing desire within many of these groups to have a working relationship with the United States.
I think that's underappreciated. It's easy to sit here and see loads of men with beards and say, well, they can't possibly be potential partners of ours. But they're all desperate to work with the West in pursuit of what they see as a just fight. Part of that does mean fighting Assad. The argument that we shouldn't be fighting Assad but we should be fighting ISIS is slightly confused. As far as I'm concerned, removing Assad, preferably politically, will actually open the gates to a much more effective counter-ISIS strategy.
With Assad in place, we're never going to defeat ISIS in Syria. He is their best recruitment mechanism within the Syrian population. He has facilitated their growth, their expansion, and their continued existence within his territory. He's still buying their oil. In fact, his key middleman was just recently sanctioned by the United Nations for doing exactly that. It's critical that we recognize the interdependent relationship there. With regard to defeating ISIS, there has to be some way, preferably politically, to remove Assad and his regime from power.
DR. CRONIN: I hope I'm not stepping out of line, but I wanted to ask a question that follows on from this conversation and is related to the one you just asked. That is, it seems to me that in the Syrian context we have a number of tactical objectives, and they relate to getting rid of Assad or getting rid of ISIS. What I don't understand is, what is the realistic future governance of that state, assuming we were to achieve those objectives?
DR. MATTAIR: There are those who think state collapse would be the result of getting rid of Assad and his clique, and some who think there are opposition forces willing to work together and build a new Syria. Charles may want to comment on that, because he's written about it. Can you just say something about Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham and why those conservative, Islamist, armed opposition movements are different from ISIS and the Nusra Front, and where they fit into the struggle against Assad and the creation of a new Syria?
MR. LISTER: In terms of state collapse or the hope for some kind of solution and future government, it's thin. But if you are a diplomat, someone who works on Track II, or an analyst or an academic, you have to hold out some hope; you can't just give up. I feel that I have to retain some kind of optimism. There are 150,000 opposition fighters right in Syria, who are all armed to the teeth and have made it clear that if Assad is not eventually removed from power, and if there isn't some hope of their having a role in building a future Syria, they will fight on for the rest of their lives.
We all know, from other conflicts around the world, that the longer you fight, you generally move up the extremist ladder and become something quite different. That's the danger, and they see it, too. We can only try to push the political track. The opposition sees the regime as inherently evil, the devil incarnate. Likewise, the regime sees the entire opposition in exactly the same way. But what I've seen in Track II work is that those boundaries can be broken down, those misunderstandings can be defeated, by putting people in the same room together. I know it's extraordinarily resource-intensive and it takes a long time. But even government efforts at doing something like this could be remarkably powerful in terms of encouraging the idea of Syria's remaining united.
Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar ash-Sham are fascinating movements. More than ISIS and al-Qaeda, they're the kinds of groups I've studied the most since the start of the conflict. They're the two most powerful opposition groups in Syria, and they are absolutely nothing like al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. They do not have international objectives. They are explicitly focused only on Syria. In some individual cases within a group like Ahrar ash-Sham, they have people who retain a transnational vision of what it means it be a Muslim or a Salafi. But they do not retain military or revolutionary objectives beyond Syria's boundaries.
When you put them in a room with a variety of other opposition groups, although they may be recognized as having slightly different ideological leanings, they are inherently part of the revolution. I'm not advocating by any means that the West should be working directly with these kinds of groups, but we must recognize that they are part of the revolution. Saudi Arabia for a very long time took a hard line against groups like this, especially Ahrar ash-Sham, but Riyadh has now come around and persuaded the Western world that groups like Ahrar ash-Sham should, if possible, have a role in the political process. They're too big to ignore, and they are part of the revolution.
I think Ahrar ash-Sham may be becoming more hardline. They had a period of about a year of internal debate, deciding whether or not a reformist faction was going to start leading the group down a new path. But that movement seems to have lost out. Jaysh al-Islam has now emerged as the key pivot for the armed opposition. Their chief political official, Mohammed Alloush, was just named yesterday as the chief negotiator on the entire opposition team that will hopefully be going to Geneva. That's a big promotion if you look at the rest of the people on that negotiating team. So these groups cannot be ignored.